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Spiritual Resurrection in Paul

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  January 2, 2002


"After the Flesh"

The first passage to consider is a meta-gospel statement Bishop Spong uses to support the Metaphorical Gospel theory. This passage is used to claim that Paul cared nothing about the historical Jesus and cared everything about the spiritual Christ of Faith. This interpretation has become one of the oldest fallacies in New Testament criticism. Paul says (in the King James translation)

"Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh; yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more." (2 Cor 5:16-17, King James)

Knowing Jesus "after the flesh" is taken to mean knowing about his earthly life, which is then to be contrasted with knowing him spiritually, in the present. To interpret the passage in this way is understandable in a casual reader, but it is inexcusable in a scholar.

First, it has been long known that Paul often uses the Greek word for "flesh" (sarx) to refer to something other than body parts.  It typically refers to the "old nature", the tendency to sin.  "After the flesh" can mean "accordingly to worldly views",

'Therefore from now we judge no one from an outward point of view.' (Word 135)

['according to the flesh'] - Now we do not know, we do not make judgments, according to merely human standards.  (Jerome 281)

'Now' - that is, this side of, after Christ's resurrection - Paul no longer contents himself with that apprehension of Christ.  Just as he no longer considers Christ as if he had not been raised from the dead, so also he now asserts that 'we can no longer consider anyone' simply from the flesh, with that phrase standing now for regarding people from all the misleading, inadequate ways that offer themselves and that Paul has been careful to reject in the previous paragraphs, from 4:7 forward.  (New, 93)

And, rightly, the New International Version translates this 'from a worldly point of view.'  Only a reader of the King James Bible (or a reader of the Greek who is unfamiliar with Paul's usage of the term) would even be tempted to think of this phrase as providing a contrast between the physical Jesus and a spirit being called "Christ."  The NIV renders this passage:

"So, from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.  Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer." (2 Cor 5:16-17, NIV)

Note the immediate context.  Notice that the first part of the sentence says that we know no man after the flesh.  If Spong's interpretation is correct, then Paul is saying that we apply this historical/spiritual distinction to everyone, not just Jesus.  We should care nothing about anyone's earthly ("fleshly") life, and only know them in their resurrection appearances.  But this is absurd.

Note the wider context.  What part does this sentence play in the overall argument?  The whole section (1 Cor 2:17-5:17) could easily be entitled "Be Reconciled to God", and contrasts the "old creation" (the worldly view, which is death) with the "new creation" (the spiritual view, which is life).  One should be forsaking the "worldly" and embracing the "spiritual."  Paul contrasts all of these things.

peddling the Word for profit speaking with sincerity
letters written with ink written by the Spirit on your hearts
written on tablets of stone written on human hearts
the Old covenant (death) transformed into his likeness (life)
the letter kills the spirit gives life
preaching with deception setting forth the truth plainly
in life, carrying body of death reveal Jesus' life
hardships and suffering heavenly dwelling

What is the pattern here?  Toward the conclusion of this array of contrasts, Paul says that we are to forsake the "Worldly" side of things, and embrace "Life" as we are reconciled to God.  Nothing could be plainer.

"Flesh and Blood"

Sometimes a second passage is claimed as support for the MG theory, to prove that Jesus' resurrection was not a bodily one.

I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 15)

This is a perfect example of blatant disregard for context.  Only someone unfamiliar with Paul's argument could even for a minute believe that he is referring to the resurrection of a disembodied spirit.  Paul is in the midst of explaining how the perishable body must be "sown", and will then be changed, into the imperishable body. The whole point is that the mortal body must undergo a transformation and be "clothed" with new attributes. "Flesh and blood" refers to mortal attributes, which must give way to immortal ones. There is no notion whatsoever of resurrection being the ascension of the disembodied spirit.

This is high irony indeed, for this passage has been wrested from the passage in which Paul most explicitly explains the factual resurrection of Jesus.

"Spiritual Body"

Mark Allan Powell sketches the case for the "Spiritual Body Resurrection", in behalf of (some) MG scholars.  I will quote him fully here, and then summarize the points in the Internal Evidence - Paul chapter.

First, a DISCLAIMER. I do not personally subscribe to this view. I think the argument is wrong. I believe that Jesus did physically rise from dead, that his body got up and walked out of the tomb on Easter morning. But I am going to try to describe the contrary view as convincingly as I can--in order to be fair to those who hold this position. It is significant that a number of Christian theologians hold this view and do not consider it contrary to biblical faith.  

Borg, Crossan, and Spong do not deny the resurrection of Jesus. There have, of course, been people throughout history who claimed the resurrection story was simply a lie, that Jesus is dead and gone, and that’s the end of it. Borg, Crossan, and Spong do not think this. 

Borg’s view at least (and I think Crossan’s) is also different from that of Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann denied the physical resurrection of Jesus as a historical event but continued to regard himself as a Christian because, he said, “Jesus continues to live in the preaching of the Church.” He was the first prominent theologian to argue that the resurrection story was “a myth,” intended to convey metaphorical truth only. (Spong often seems to follow Bultmann but his view may in fact have more in common with that of Borg and others who are a step closer to orthodoxy) 

The newer development (Borg and others) is a view that agrees with Bultmann that the “empty tomb stories” are metaphorical tales, but also insists (unlike Bultmann) that  Jesus really did rise from the dead and continues to live today in a real (though spiritual) sense--not just in some symbolic way (e.g., through the ongoing influence of his ideas). Bottom line: they do believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ, while granting that somewhere over in Palestine, there is a skeleton of Jesus. How can this be? 

Most New Testament scholars make a distinction between “the resurrection of the body” and the “resuscitation of a corpse.” With regard to Jesus, it is possible (though not necessary) to affirm the former as literal and historical, while still regarding the latter as only metaphorical.  

The argument, in a nutshell, is based on the writings of Paul (which pre-date the Gospels). Paul, so it is said, does not believe that God is going to resuscitate our dead corpses at the end of time--like zombies out of some “living dead” movie. Rather, Paul believes that God will raise us up on the last day with new, spiritual bodies. Thus, it does not matter what happens to our corpses--whether they get cremated or eaten by worms. Resurrection is like creation -- in fact it is called a “new creation” -- God gives us new bodies, made from scratch.  

It is against this background that Paul supposedly understands the resurrection of Jesus. Paul knows that people have been raised from the dead before (Elijah raised a widow’s son)--but all that happened in those instances was that a dead corpse was brought back to life. The person was simply restored to his (or her) original life, not given the new life that comes when God creates new spiritual bodies for us. Of course, those people eventually died again. But when Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul realized that God had done something new and unprecedented. God had not just resuscitated the corpse of Jesus and restored him to his original life. The Jesus Paul beheld had a new, spiritual body, leading Paul to conclude that Christ was the “first fruits” of those who would be raised from the dead, proof positive that we--like Christ--would have eternal life. According to this argument, it would not have bothered Paul in the least if the crucified corpse of Jesus was still rotting in a tomb somewhere.  

Here is what seems to be support for this argument: Paul talks often in his letters about the resurrection of Jesus, but he never once mentions the empty tomb. Paul knew Peter and the other disciples of Jesus well--surely they would have told him about the empty tomb, if what is reported in the Gospels really happened. But Paul doesn’t seem to know these stories. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul lists all of the resurrection appearances that serve as proof of the resurrection of Jesus. He is trying to garner as much evidence as he can to prove that Jesus is risen. He mentions some of the stories that we have in the Gospels: stories about Jesus appearing to his disciples, perhaps in the “upper room” or out by the Sea of Galilee or on the mountain where he gives the Great Commission. But what he does not mention is any story of Jesus appearing to people at the tomb. Why not? 

The proposed answer is this: Paul wrote twenty to thirty years before the Gospels. At that time, there were no stories about Jesus body getting up and walking out of the tomb–there were no stories about how women came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, found the tomb empty and then met Jesus himself in the garden outside the tomb. Jesus’ own disciples–who Paul knew–did not tell Paul those stories because, in fact, nothing like that ever happened. All that really happened is the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples just like he did to Paul on the Damascus road–in a new, spiritual body. Thus, they like Paul, knew that Jesus was risen without caring about what had happened to the corpse in the tomb (if there was one). In fact, the corpse of Jesus was probably still in the tomb--or rotting away somewhere–but none of Jesus’ original disciples or Paul cared about that. They believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead with a new spiritual body–which is much more important than God simply bringing the dead body of Jesus back to life (as God did with Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, and others). The stories about the empty tomb and the physical body of Jesus coming back to life got made up later by people who were using mythology to express a metaphorical truth.  

I think this argument is wrong, but I believe it makes more sense than you allow. I can see how a reasonable person might be convinced that this is right--and yet still be a Christian. Indeed there is no reason why one cannot believe this argument and still believe in Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior” or as “the Lord of the Church.” One can believe all of the above and still have a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ as a living, risen Lord (as Borg, Crossan, and Spong all claim they do). 

This may not be the time to express why I think the argument is wrong, but I’ll drop a few hints. A principal reason is that careful examination of the “empty tomb stories” reveals that they are not myths but historical reports. The original authors clearly intended to report what they believe to have happened in history. They do so with details (names of persons and places) that would still have been verifiable at the time they wrote. Also, no opponent of Christianity (Jewish or Roman) ever denied these stories--in fact, they agreed that the tomb of Jesus had been found empty on the third day and merely alleged that this was because the disciples had stolen his body. Furthermore, all of the empty tomb appearances are made to women: to three women in one instance (Matthew) and to Mary Magdalene alone in another (John). Since the testimony of women in that day was not regarded as credible (cf. Luke 24:11), it is unthinkable that anyone would invent a story about an empty tomb appearance with women as the only witnesses. In that day, women were not even allowed to give testimony in a court of law--even if they were eyewitnesses to a crime--because the testimony of women was never regarded as reliable. If, then, the author of Matthew’s Gospel wanted to make up a story about the physical body of Jesus coming out of the tomb and appearing to people, why would he have the only people who saw this be women? Why not make up a story with more reliable witnesses? Indeed, this probably explains why Paul does not refer to the empty tomb stories. In 1 Corinthians 15, when he lists witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, he lists only male witnesses, because he assumes that they are the only ones whose testimony will count for his readers.  (email to me, December 2001)

Powell, in this last paragraph, points to arguments from the gospel accounts.  I will try to summarize this kind of argument and then respond to the first two arguments.  I will respond to the third in the next section, which deals with the Internal Evidence against the Metaphorical Gospel Theory.

Three Arguments

I will try to outline the three types of arguments that are sometimes used to show that Paul's conception of Jesus' resurrection was a "spiritual" resurrection which was, in fact, compatible with the decay of his dead body in the tomb.

There are, first, two important assumptions that must be brought out. 

Assumption 1 - Ok

Paul's evidence is earlier than the Gospels, and thus primary.  Paul should not be interpreted with the eyes of "gospel understanding", but should stand entirely on his own. 

I agree that his evidence is earlier than the Gospels, and am willing to let him speak for himself on his own terms.  No argument here.

Assumption 2 - Bad

There are two possibilities:  resuscitation or spirit being.  That is, either Jesus' body was revived like Lazarus', only to die again, OR the body remained in the grave and Jesus' continued existence was based on something else (either a soul, a pure spirit, or a "spiritual body", whatever that might be, depending upon the commentator).

Bishop Spong points to Paul's understanding of Jesus' resurrection as internal evidence that he held a non-physical view of it.

"There is no sense at all in Paul of a physical resurrection of Jesus back into the life of this world.  God did not, for this apostle, raise Jesus from the grave back to life on this earth. Rather, for Paul, God raised Jesus from death into God's presence; ... Paul was the earliest author in what we now call the New Testament, and in his writings there was no resurrection of a physical body. Indeed Paul specifically denied that claim." (Resurrection: Reality or Myth? p 50-51).

Note first how disingenuous this is.  Spong pretends not to know there is a third possibility, namely the one held throughout the ages by Christianity! - that Jesus' body came back to life and was transformed into a new kind of body with new attributes.  Not only is this a valid formal possibility, it is the position against which Spong should be arguing.  Instead he attacks a straw man, that of resuscitation.

Outline of Three Arguments

A.  Argument from Jesus' Appearance to Paul

  1. Jesus appeared to Paul (Damascus road) in a spiritual, not bodily form

  2. Jesus' appearance to Paul was like his appearance to the other disciples

  3. So, Jesus' resurrection was in a spiritual, not bodily form

B.  Argument from Paul's Failure to Mention the Empty Tomb

  1. Paul talks about resurrection but does not mention the empty tomb

  2. If Paul had known about the empty tomb, he would have mentioned it

  3. If the tomb was empty, Paul would have known about it

  4. So, the tomb was not empty

C.  Argument from Paul's Description of Our Resurrection

  1. Our 'resurrection' will be a spiritual, not a physical continuation of our existence.

  2. Jesus' resurrection is the model for our own.

  3. So, Jesus' resurrection was spiritual, not physical

Argument from Jesus' Appearance to Paul

The first argument in a nutshell is this:

  1. Jesus appeared to Paul (Damascus road) in a spiritual, not bodily form

  2. Jesus' appearance to Paul was like his appearance to the other disciples

  3. (implied:  Jesus' appearance to the disciples was a clear indication of his spiritual/physical status)

  4. So, Jesus' resurrection was in a spiritual, not bodily form

I dispute the first two premises.  The conclusion does indeed follow, if the implicit premise #3 is included, which seems fair enough.

#1.  How did Jesus appear to Paul in Acts?  First, it is clear this is not technically portrayed as a vision (a purely subjective, mental event), since the observers experienced a light and a sound.  Paul saw and heard something.  What's difficult to say is exactly what form this appearance took.  Does Luke say that Jesus was a pure spirit, or a spirit being?  Is there anything inconsistent between Paul's experience and Jesus having a transformed, glorified, risen body (we will see that described below)?  I can't see that there is.

When unsure about this, we should judge the difficult things from the clear (the resurrection accounts in the gospels).  Paul's letters may be primary, but it would be a strange logic to set Luke's narrative in Acts as the interpretive norm for his narrative in Luke.

#2.  Paul gives a list of Jesus' appearances in 1 Corinthians.  Certainly, he did not see the Risen Jesus in exactly the same way as did the disciples, since he experienced not only the risen Jesus but the Ascended Jesus (as is implied by "as one born out of season."  Is he claiming that the disciples did not experience Jesus bodily in this passage?  On the contrary, it seems as if he is attempting to show that his experience was just as real as theirs

Argument from Paul's Failure to Mention the Empty Tomb

This second argument in a nutshell is this:

  1. Paul talks about resurrection but does not mention the empty tomb

  2. If Paul had known about the empty tomb, he would have mentioned it

  3. If the tomb was empty, Paul would have known about it

  4. So, the tomb was not empty

I accept the contention that Paul never mentioned the empty tomb; I certainly don't know of any statements where he does.  I also accept #3 and #4.  I question premise #2. 

2.  We should always be wary of using arguments from silence.  Certainly, an argument from silence should not overturn a sound argument based upon positive evidence. 

Why wouldn't Paul have mentioned the empty tomb?  It does seem as if he could have mentioned it - or told the stories regarding angels at the tomb, the linen, the dramatic questions, appearances to the women, etc.  Instead, he cites the various appearances (the twelve, 500 at the same time, etc.) when giving evidence for the resurrection.  Why?  Here are possible reasons:

There are all kinds of possibilities.  There is no compelling reason to think that Paul must have including a discussion of the empty tomb had he known about it.  I just thought of three plausible  possibilities.  I'm sure there could be others. 

Thus, bottom line, since premise #2 is not logically valid, the argument is not sound.